After winning her first Oscar in 1988 for The Accidental Tourist, Geena Davis was catapulted to stardom with back-to-back roles in hits like Beetlejuice and Thelma & Louise. In the early aughts, she stepped away from acting—mainly, she says, because the roles lacked complexity and the projects weren’t interesting. Davis decided to set her sights on a new challenge: After observing the way women were narrowly stereotyped and hypersexualized onscreen, she launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004 to increase the presence of female representation in film and television. With the institute’s cutting-edge data collection technology that measures how female screen and speaking time is disproportionate to men in film and television, Davis has been quietly revolutionizing the way the entertainment industry approaches gender parity.
Now Davis is returning to the screen with two projects: This Changes Everything, a documentary on misrepresentation of women in the entertainment industry (for which she also served as the executive producer), and an arc on Netflix’s female wrestling comedy Glow. In October, she’ll receive her second Oscar in the form of the Academy’s coveted Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, recognizing her contributions to film both as an actor and activist over the last four decades. Vogue.com spoke to Davis to talk about the state of gender parity in Hollywood, why she’s never been scared to voice her opinion, and where she plans on putting her new Oscar.
You’ve become one of the entertainment industry’s most passionate advocates for gender equality. Was there a specific catalyst for your work?
Definitely Thelma & Louise. It was life-changing to work with Susan Sarandon, because I didn't know any women like her who said what they think and expressed what they wanted. I was raised to feel that the most important thing in life was to be polite and not cause any problems. It was an extraordinary degree of making myself smaller, which is hard for someone as tall as me. But working with Susan and observing her was incredibly eye-opening, and she’s still my hero.
You came into Hollywood at a time when gender parity and underrepresentation weren’t really at the forefront of the conversation.
It wasn’t. I’d been in the business for almost ten years when I did Thelma & Louise. I started around the time Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Jessica Lange were in some big movie every year getting nominated. I’d heard murmurs about how once women in Hollywood turn 40 they didn’t get jobs anymore, and I thought, Well that’s not gonna be true because once these women get to 40, they’ll have fixed it! Look at what they’re doing and these great parts!
So you thought you were riding the wave those other actors were spearheading?
Yes. I thought there was a wave going on and then I started getting some really cool parts that seemed to back up my notion that things were getting better. When Thelma & Louise came out the press all said, "This changes everything now, we’re going to see so many more movies starring women about women." And I was sure that would happen… until it didn’t. Everybody seems very eager to think we’re done, but it absolutely isn’t.
Why do you think there’s such a strong perception that things have changed?
I think because things constantly go back to the way they were. This set-up and the way it’s operated for so many decades is so ingrained in everyone that it's the only thing people trust. The reason I started this whole research institute is because I found out that people absolutely had no idea that kids’ media was so gender-biased. And before I watched it with my daughter, I was sure it was fine. I was appalled to learn the truth and I decided I was gonna bring it up in my daily life in Hollywood. When I had a meeting with anybody I’d say: “Have you ever noticed how few female characters are in kids’ movies?” And every single person said: “No, that’s not true anymore, that's been fixed!” They’d even name a movie with one female character as proof of gender parity. So I thought, I’m getting the data on this… And that made all of the difference.
Most of your research centers around gender parity, but does it extend into other areas of underrepresentation?
Very much so, and I don’t emphasize enough that our research is intersectional and definitely looks at LGBTQ characters and characters with disabilities. Those two that are often the most excluded. People with disabilities are something like 20 percent of the population but only 1 percent of characters in family-rated films are other-abled. Also, there are very few female characters of color who barely show up on a graph.
The statistics in your documentary This Changes Everything are jaw-dropping, like how 92 percent of the top-grossing films of 2018 were directed by men.
It’s an embarrassment. We should be deeply ashamed that women are half the population and half the students in film school and yet only 4 percent of movies are directed by women. It’s appalling.
I thought it was interesting the documentary doesn’t try and paint these executives as villains but point out the reality that most of them are just careless.
It’s true. They want the best and they want to do a good job. They care about kids, so their horror at the numbers does a lot of the work for us. But people have known for decades how few writers, directors, and producers are female and it’s done nothing. No one at a studio is saying, “What? It's only 4 percent? We must do better!” Although Disney very recently announced that 40 percent of their upcoming movies are directed by women. I’m not saying I’m really optimistic, but it definitely is a new era since Time’s Up and #MeToo where now it's not only okay to talk about it, but you don’t have to fear losing your career over pointing it out.
Was that ever a worry of yours?
No, but I think my peers and I always felt like you shouldn’t complain and the worst thing you could ever do is point out that you were being sexually harassed or your salary wasn’t equal to the men. It seemed like it would be career suicide, and you can think of some examples of people whose careers really suffered when they became outspoken. But it’s a different time now, like when Gillian Anderson found out she was making half of what David Duchovny was for the X-Files reboot. She talked about it immediately.
Do you wish more men in the industry would speak out about issues of gender equality?
We can’t solve the problem if men aren’t participating in it. I think in a weird way the whole #MeToo movement has made some men very nervous. It’s that idea of What if I do or say the wrong thing? I have a friend who is a high-powered executive, and when all this started happening she said men would come into meetings laughing saying: “Hey, what’s okay now? Is it still okay to give you a hug or kiss? I used to!” She got so impatient with their attitude and would say: “No, just don’t take your dick out. That's the only thing you have to worry about, otherwise everything’s the same.”
You’re so great on the new season of Glow and your big scene at the gay bar performing in that showgirl uniform is such a standout moment. Are you aware you have a huge following in the gay community?
I was hoping that was true! Is it really true?
Absolutely, especially because of films like Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own.
Oh, my god. That’s fabulous! I’m so happy. I always was jealous of people who were gay icons. For that scene, they were real drag queens and bar patrons because we went to a real gay bar to shoot it. They didn't tell the crowd I was in the show or that anything like that was gonna happen but just said: “Now we're gonna film the scene where somebody comes through this curtain and you’re excited and cheer and clap!” But they didn't know it was gonna be me, and when they opened the curtain and I came out everyone just went: AHHHHHHH!
In October you’re receiving the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. You won your first Oscar in 1988, so what was your reaction this time around?
I got a text on a Saturday morning saying, “John Bailey urgently needs to speak to you!” And I thought, What on earth could the president of the Academy urgently need to talk to me about during the summer? I was floored, because a lot of what I've been doing is behind the scenes, frankly. My cause has not been educating the public because I have access to everybody in Hollywood and I decided I wanted the data to go directly to the creators privately. I assumed most people didn’t really know about what I was doing, so as you can imagine it is incredibly flattering. And now I’ll have bookends with my two Oscars!
Originally Appeared on Vogue